In the Loop With Sherie Rene Scott
In the Loop With Sherie Rene Scott
Sherie Rene Scott is never at a loss for words. Whether the words are written by herself or in conjunction with her frequent collaborator, Dick Scanlan, this is one New York actress who puts her heart, soul and intellect into everything she says on and offstage. Primarily a musical comedy star, Scott’s Broadway résumé includes such mega hits as The Who’s Tommy, Rent, Aida, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Little Mermaid (as villainous sea witch Ursula!), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Everyday Rapture. For Rapture, she was honored with a 2010 Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical and shared a second Tony nom with Scanlan for Best Book of a Musical. Now, once again with Scanlan as co-writer, she stars in a new play, a nonmusical, Whorl Inside a Loop, at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre. Here, Scott takes us inside the experience of going inside a men’s prison (the basis for the play) and coming out with … but let her explain.
Francis Lewis: You seem to have this remarkable life. How is that? Do you go in search of adventures/challenges or do adventures/challenges just happen?
Sherie Rene Scott: People from Kansas [where she was born] lead remarkable lives, it’s just a fact. Though, as I learned on my most recent visit, you never hear their stories because of the liberal media conspiracy, and the humanoid alien creatures from a parallel universe who are monitoring the Internet through our microwaves.
Moving to New York at 18 a few years ago, and not knowing one person, my challenge was to find fun, healthy friends I could share and create with. I was very lucky to find one [Dick Scanlan], who enjoys writing about our adventures and sometimes putting on shows inspired by them. It’s just like Judy and Mickey, except he’s tall and I’m short. We’re both blondes—basically. We’re co-authors of Whorl, but he’s also co-directing, while I’m semi-semi-co-starring. It’s set in a prison, not a barn; it’s a tour de force for the six great actors playing 22 different roles, and it’s not a musical. Other than that, MGM, all the way.
FL: How did the prison gig come about? And why were you so keen to take it on?
SRS: In 2011, Dick gave me the following opening-night present: One Monday, together as guest teachers in a personal narratives class, upstate, in a men’s prison. For some reason he thought I’d like that. He said he didn’t know another actress he would think to give that gift to. I told him there wasn’t another person on the planet I’d take that gift from, without secretly thinking it was an elaborate excuse for forgetting flowers.
The head teacher of the class of 13 men was Dick’s childhood friend, the wonderful Shawn Fischer. Her teaching was facilitated by Rehabilitation Through The Arts, and in charge of programming for the prison at that time, the incredible Deputy Jean King. Our one class turned into many months over a year and a half, culminating in three presentations of the men’s work inside the prison, a New Yorker Talk of the Town article about those presentations, an NPR interview and a piece of theatre we decided to try when we put pen to paper in the fall of 2013.
After our first class in 2011, we found we couldn’t have the experience we were meant to have if we were busy thinking about writing about the experience. What was really happening was more important than ‘capturing’ it, which was a strange thing to realize in prison. Regardless of the separate personal pressure I was under to make everything I did, felt and thought into work, Dick supported our mutual instinct to live the experience, over time.
FL: Were you at any time apprehensive?
SRS: Our real-life time in prison didn’t have antagonistic aspects. Mostly our interactions with those in the outside world, with regard to our work inside prison, are what created drama. The play is inspired by facts, but connecting to the deeper issues that came up for us while teaching in prison is what served this story. As we did in Everyday Rapture, I think we're experimenting with the movement of this line between fact and story. The female volunteer character created for Whorl merrily dispenses with facts in service to the story. Her story, that is. One fact we added for the female character in Whorl is one I also felt as a woman going into a men’s prison, a truth surprising to others, as well as myself; I was less objectified and more respected teaching in a men’s prison than I’d been for some time in both my professional and personal environments. To feel safer in prison than I was feeling on stage, or in my personal relationships, was an eye-opener I’m still processing.
FL: Did the experience change your life, perhaps enhance it?
SRS: We didn’t go into prison to create a show and we didn’t come out with one; though I should mention, especially for IN Magazine, when discussing prison, it’s naturally referred to as being ‘in’ or being ‘out’. We learned there are all types of prisons, ones we see and ones we don’t, and it seems one has to go ‘in’ to get ‘out'.
I came out [of prison] knowing my natural desire to be ‘of service’ had to be integrated into my work. I’d tried, but for me there was never a separation between my work, my personal life, my spiritual life—it’s all one. It wasn’t a goody-goody thing, I came to know it was a core-survival thing for me. Also, I came out of prison, funnily enough, respecting humor on a different level, as a necessity. Even in the most dire situations, with time and distance, humor, and a sense of the absurd, is a survival tool, it’s a life-saver. It moves life forward in the most magical ways.
I had no political agenda when we volunteered. I came out knowing our tax dollars go to good people doing incredibly hard jobs, doing so much with so little. Our tax dollars go to men and women trying to make personal changes we can’t comprehend the enormity of, in the most difficult of circumstances.
I came out knowing the deck is stacked; surprise, surprise. But there are lots of people, with no resources no family, no money, no support—who take responsibility for what they’ve done, who strive to improve themselves, make amends, who are genuinely changed. I saw this juxtaposed with my ‘free’ world on the outside, where so many, with every resource available, don’t do the work, don't get the help, cause so much pain and keep getting away with it.
With all my good fortune it’s a challenge for me to be the best person I can be. Some of the guys from our class have been paroled, including four of the contributing writers to our play. I’ve witnessed their countless obstacles entering back into society, trying to be the best men they can be.
I think about how much change and growth I’ve witnessed, or have been honored to be a part of. When it rises, I know the feeling of separateness from other beings, or all of life, is a false feeling. Because of this experience, I think about how many little miracles there are all around us, and I want to be a part of that.
The next step is the shift from writer-to-actor. The story Dick and I, Rick [Norat], Felix [Machado], Marvin [Lewis], Andre [Kelley] and Jeffrey [Rivera] wrote [Ed. note: Norat, Machado, Lewis, Kelley and Rivera, prisoners whom Scott and Scanlan taught, are credited with supplying additional material to the script], that Michael [Mayer] and Dick are directing, is now my job to share as part of an ensemble of great actors, using any resource I have, on any given night. While getting the laughs, of course. That’s a big prerequisite for any gig—go to the ends of the earth and get those laughs.
FL: How did you tell your son, “Mommy’s going to prison now”?
SRS: Kids are so cool and wonderful—if the parent feels safe, healthy and happy, the kid feels the same. Teaching in prison wasn’t scary for me in any way, so my son was cool ’cause I was cool. Also, I think kids like to hear a little about the parent’s life, but not so much. In my experience, kids are similar to prisoners in that they have highly tuned BS detectors, and they’re not impressed with any crap. As they get older, that gets whittled down, unfortunately, but it’s always in there. Plus, my son and I had Legos to do, so he knew what was important.
It’s worth noting. however. that my son expressed deep concern about me working in a show I was doing at the time, refusing to see it, or to step foot inside that theater. He never expressed concern about me working with incarcerated criminals. He instinctually knew where I was more in danger, on many levels. Kids know a lot.
FL: When do you know when something in your life can be turned into a piece of theater that others can experience? And what do you want audiences to take away from Whorl Inside a Loop?
SRS: It seems to be when something is so overpowering it won’t let go of you. So in order to have more wonderful life experiences, and be fully present for them, you gotta get that story out. Nobody has to listen to it, of course. The important thing is to get it out. Knowing that people might listen, and you’re going to be the one standing there sharing it with them, helps you tell it better, and more honestly, I think.
With Whorl, Dick allowed for process; he knew we needed time as individuals to find the story that excited us to tell. With time we’d see if our separate truths had the potential to come together and create a bigger truth. Though it’s inspired by our experience of prison, we created a world of characters and situations that excite us as writers. I love being able to say, out loud and proud, Dick lead me to trust what moves and excites me, what feels right. Dick’s devoted a lot of time following our instincts as a team, and a lot of that time is spent deciphering my aforementioned ‘remarkable life adventures/challenges’. Working with Dick, in prison and out, has been one of the greatest gifts and joys of my life.
I’d like audiences to find Whorl surprising, funny, sexy, moving and thought/conversation-provoking. In other words, I wouldn’t mind if audiences, you know, feel the work surpasses all space and time, turns them on to transformations on a cellular level, and quickens the much-needed deep and transcendent soul-healing of our shared pain-body/raises of our collective consciousness. I would be OK with that too.
FL: And the show's title?
SRS: I like the String Theory. Plus it’s a prison thing. You gotta see the show. But, when you think about it, aren't you a Whorl Inside A Loop?
Whorl Inside a Loop, Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., at Eighth Ave., 212.246.4422, www.2st.com. Previews begin Aug. 4, opens Aug. 27, closes Sept. 20